A Reality Check for Americans Obsessed With 'More' The American dream is constantly evolving. Fifty years ago, folks wanted a house with a white picket fence. Now, it's a private jet. Are humans hard-wired to always want more than they have?

A Reality Check for Americans Obsessed With 'More'

A Reality Check for Americans Obsessed With 'More'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16053199/16053171" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The American dream is constantly evolving. Fifty years ago, folks wanted a house with a white picket fence. Now, it's a private jet. Are humans hard-wired to always want more than they have?

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Peter Sagal has been thinking about what we really need and what we want. He's the host of NPR's quiz show, WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME. And Peter Sagal says lately people's expectations have gotten a bit out of whack.

PETER SAGAL: The other day on the radio, I heard a gentleman who had written a book about young oil traders, guys who made millions of dollars a year or sometimes a day. He said they were living out what he called the new American dream. Once, he said, our parents dreamed of a house with a white picket fence. Now young people dream of taking their private jet to their fourth home in Aspen.

At a more or less the same time, the Democratic Senate failed to consider a bill that would have raised the income tax on private equity managers from around 15 percent to around 35 percent, the rate the rest of us pay on our income. This seemed like a no-brainer for Democrats, as some of these managers make more than $100 million a year. And there are less than a thousand of them, not exactly a powerful voting block. The bill is now being offered in the House, but nobody seems to care much about this inequity.

The insight explains the action. The American people don't mind preferential treatment of the super wealthy because on some level these days, we all expect to someday join their ranks. Stop anybody in the street and they will be able to rattle off a catalog of the ways they are going to become a multimillionaire. Here are some of them.

Think of a way to make a lot of people look at your Web site. Train Oprah's dog or, since that's been done, become Oprah's orthodontist or, if that's been done, do something nice for Oprah that nobody has thought to do for her before. Get on "American Idol" and win. Go to Dubai. Figure out something they want in Dubai. Sell it to them.

Now, the chances of any of these things happening to the closest approximation are zero. The American economy - at least the cutting-edge aspirational part of it - is based on a whole bunch of people basically arranging themselves in a vast field and hoping for lighting to strike them. Many of them are always running over to where lightning last struck, hoping it will hit them this time.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to get rich. But the strange thing is, most of the people with these billionaire dreams are already among the richest people ever to walk the planet. I myself have more material wealth than 99 percent of all the human beings who have ever lived and I work in public radio. A medieval emperor would look at my stocked refrigerator, my closets filled with clothes, my powerful machinery, and immediately start coming up with ideas for a new Web site, so he could live the dream.

It may be that we are programmed by evolution to always want more than we have. Perhaps, those of our ancient ancestors who were happy eating bananas and the odd squirrel that died of old age were forced out of the gene pool by the ambitious, younger Cro-Magnons, the guys who had a sharp business plan for hunting a mammoth and had attracted some impressive venture capital to buy some spears.

For whatever the reason, we will never escape or fulfill our ambitions. The New York Times recently ran a feature on a guy who made $100 million on the Internet before he was 30. After a miserable year of doing nothing, he has started a new business. His only goal? Make more money than he did the first time.

Me, I got a great plan for finally being able to afford my own jet. There are a bunch of guys over there in a field, running around hoping to be struck by lightning. I'm going to go sell them metal rods to stick up in the air. Hopefully, one of them will get lucky with it and then get to talk about it on "Oprah."

See you in Aspen.

NORRIS: Peter Sagal is the host of NPR's WAIT, WAIT... DON'T TELL ME. He's also the author of "The Book of Vice: Very Naughty Things and How to Do Them."

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.